For the past 30 years or so, a major trend in tradition-based Québécois music has been to sing chansons à répondre (call-and-reply songs) of unrelenting good-time bonhomie and to play hard and fast, especially on instrumental reels. Yet this choice of material and folk-on-steroids approach stresses one side of the music—admittedly important and attractive—at the expense of others. More recently, a number of groups such as the duo of singer and guitarist Yann Falquet and fiddler Pascal Gemme have broadened their palette to include more reflective songs, performing tunes in a more measured, nuanced way that allows them to breathe.
“Traditional musicians played for dances, but at home they played for themselves and their families and friends,” says Falquet, reached in Louisville, Kentucky, and speaking in French. “It would have been almost a kind of meditation. As for the songs, they were quite often melancholic complaintes [a form of ballad]. Pascal and I wanted to explore that side on our album [Princes et Habitants], and playing as a duo lent itself well to it. With just two of us, there’s a great deal of musical space that you can create to allow the instruments to speak and let pieces develop at their own pace.”
Though their duo is relatively new, Falquet and Gemme have been playing together for almost 20 years in the band Genticorum, along with flutist and electric bassist Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand. “When Pascal and Alex started families, I began performing with English-speaking musicians, and in concerts I couldn’t sing chansons à répondre, as neither the musicians nor the audience could understand French well enough to sing the response lines readily,” Falquet says. “It’s then, really, that the idea of more broadly folk-based arrangements developed in parallel with what we were doing with Genticorum. It was the basis of our duo project—songs I’d researched in the archives of Laval University and had been working on, in combination with fiddle tunes that inspired Pascal at the time.”
Princes et Habitants, released earlier this year, is the tasty fruit of all those years of experience. It’s a finely balanced work—alternating between songs and largely traditional instrumental tunes, brisker and slower tempos, convivial and introspective moods—and has been nominated for traditional album of the year at the forthcoming 2016 Canadian Folk Awards.
“We were inspired by other duo projects, in particular Portland by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill,” says Falquet. “It’s very intimate, well put-together, with plenty of freedom in the repertoire, which is possible when you have just two musicians. Also the work of Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, plus the work of André Marchand and Grey Larsen in a similar vein. It’s the opportunity for the two of us to create music that’s a bit distinct from what we’ve done before with Genticorum, where half our show at festivals was driving, highly rhythmic tunes powered by electric bass. Time to move on to something else.”
Yann Falquet and Pascal Gemme play St. James Hall on Friday (November 25).